Public to get direct access to barristers

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The Independent Online

Barristers will be able to offer their services directly to clients in police stations under plans for radical reform of the legal profession to be announced next week.

Barristers will be able to offer their services directly to clients in police stations under plans for radical reform of the legal profession to be announced next week.

The move by the Bar would help end the 100-year-old ban on the public's direct access to advocates as well as cut the cost of having to pay for both a solicitor and a barrister when one lawyer might do.

Proposals, contained in a consultation paper to be published on Monday, include measures to allow barristers to take instructions from suspects in police stations without the presence of a solicitor. They also raise the possibility of barristers setting up an on-call service for people arrested by the police, equivalent to the solicitors' own 24-hour duty scheme.

Leaders at the Bar have already accepted that they must relax their rules for permitting direct access to the public in civil cases.

The Bar tells its members: "Overall, we consider that if direct access is to be permitted, there is no reason of principle why barristers should not be able to attend and offer advice in police stations."

It adds: "Clearly, there is potential financial benefit to the Bar... On the assumption that this type of work would generally be undertaken by barristers of junior call, there is scope for a significant increase in earnings both as a consequence of attendance at the police station and... by reason of likely continued involvement in the criminal proceedings."

Guy Mansfield QC, chairman of the Bar Council's legal services committee, said: "This may be the most controversial part of the consultation paper and much depends on the views of criminal practitioners."

He said the kind of cases which might benefit would include bail applications, criminal appeals, guilty pleas which were concluded in the magistrates' court and contested hearings in the magistrates' court where imprisonment was not a punishment.

Later this month the Office of Fair Trading will publish its own conclusions to an investigation on restrictive practices in the legal profession. In his report last March, the director-general of fair trading, John Vickers, threatened to abolish any of the bar's restrictive practices which could not be justified in the public interest.

As a response the bar set up a committee under the leading QC Sir Sydney Kentridge to examine the practices highlighted by the OFT report. The committee concluded that the ban on barristers practising in partnership and the limitation of their role in litigation to advisory work and advocacy are justified. It also argues that the QC system should stay. But it is "not convinced" that the benefits of the referral system justify the ban on clients approaching a barrister direct.

The rule was relaxed in 1989 to allow other professionals, including accountants and surveyors, to brief barristers. The BarDirect scheme, set up in 1999, allows organisations approved by the Bar Council, which include police forces, probation services, insurers, and doctors' defence groups, to dispense with solicitors.

Under the proposals, the would-be client would approach the barrister, who would then decide whether to take the case. The barrister would be limited to advisory work and advocacy, so a solicitor would still be needed in many cases.